The Overseas Operation Bill would introduce stronger legal protections for UK soldiers serving abroad. But critics believe it will make overseas operations worse for victims of war crimes and for the UK’s standing in the world.
The UK government has pushed through a law that would shield the country’s soldiers from prosecution for murder or torture which occurred five years or more before an allegation is formally made.
The Overseas Operations Bill is being proposed as a necessary intervention to protect British troops from “vexatious” legal claims against their actions while deployed abroad.
The legislation would create a “triple lock" that includes a five-year statute of limitation against prosecutions for alleged offences, apart from rape or sexual violence.
Members of Parliament (MPs) debated the bill in the House of Commons on Wednesday and a majority of MPs voted it through to its next stage.
David Davis, a Conservative MP and former cabinet minister, said he was “deeply troubled by government plans to decriminalise torture by British personnel”.
Supporters of the bill are troubled that a number of former soldiers who are accused of the unlawful killing of Iraqi civilians following the 2003 Invasion have faced repeated criminal investigations that have dragged on for years.
Johnny Mercer, the minister for defence people and veterans, said the legislation would “put an end to lawfare” and help make the UK “the best place in the world to be a veteran”.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has condemned what it calls unprincipled “lawfare” or the judicialisation of war, in which “opportunistic” human rights lawyers launch post-conflict litigation on behalf of individuals affected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland.
A ‘free pass’ for war crimes
A wide range of critics have raised concerns that the proposed measures in the bill would violate international law.
In an op-ed for the Guardian, Nicholas Mercer, a senior military legal adviser who served in Iraq, wrote: “As we know from various public inquires, the British army used unlawful interrogation techniques in Iraq and Afghanistan, which breached the UN convention on torture.”
“If this bill passes into law, the government will have effectively legislated to protect itself from those allegations.”
Torture has been prohibited under international law since 1948 and is enshrined in legal instruments such as the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Professor Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, spoke out against the bill:
“The adoption of the envisaged Overseas Operations Bill would consolidate the impression of a deliberate policy of impunity for the involvement of British officials in torture and ill-treatment, thus further eroding the credibility of the UK’s traditional commitment to fundamental norms of international humanitarian law and human rights law.”
Earlier this month the country’s most senior former soldier Charles Guthrie, along with former defence and foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind and former head of military prosecutions Bruce Holder, wrote to UK prime minister Boris Johnson saying the legislation would be an “international embarrassment” and a “damaging signal to send to the world.”
UK human rights watchdog the Equality and Human Rights Commission has called for the government to withdraw its plans and argued a time limit would never be set for serious crimes if they were committed outside of the Armed Forces.
Amnesty International UK has claimed the proposed legislation would cause “real and lasting damage to the reputation of the Armed Forces”.
“It is in no one’s interests for members of the Armed Forces to be given a free pass over alleged war crimes,” said Director Kate Allen.
The bill will move through a number of stages next, be debated by the UK parliament’s House of Lords, and then return to MPs before it can become law.